Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet

Vulpes Libris is delighted to welcome new guest reviewer Hilary Ely, in the first of what we hope will be many regular appearances here, with a review that serves as  an excellent introduction to her as well as the book!


Victorians Inspired by a towering irritation at journalists and academics who trot out the discredited cliché that Victorians were so repressed they insisted that piano legs could not be seen unclothed, Matthew Sweet takes on various misapprehensions about Victorian popular culture. The result, Inventing the Victorians, is a spirited and entertaining read, but a book that cannot quite make up its mind about what it really thinks of this strange homogeneous tribe he believes that we all designate as ‘The Victorians’.

The thesis is that people who lived in Great Britain from the middle to the end of the 19th century are much like you and me, with the same instincts, tastes and preoccupations. Or, according to a quote on the back of the book, ‘more liberated and radical than we believed’. Right … I think I knew that already. His chosen enemy is, I imagine, anyone who lazily buys into the Thatcherite concept of Victorian Values. Did these values REALLY survive more than 48 hours of scrutiny, though, and did they genuinely win Margaret Thatcher her second election? Oh dear – I suppose they did. He also takes a very satisfactory swipe at the pillars of the Bloomsbury Group, whom he blames for our skewed image of the Victorians. But who has ever relied, totally, on Lytton Strachey or Virginia Woolf for their opinions on this? I know that they liked the idea that they were throwing off the shackles etc., but they have only ever seemed to me to be an evolution, not a revolution. I’ve always cultivated a healthy respect and affection for the Victorian age, with lots of examples, including personal ones, before me of its richness and energy. So, I’d like to think I’m not the intended audience.

The subjects he chooses to prove that Victorian Values are not repressive, or cosy or comfortable, reflect what we would consider today tabloid values – sensation and scandal, celebrities, drugs, consumerism, property, children and childhood, and sex. It seems a shame that he did not choose to cover other areas where it is fascinating to reflect on the influence of the 19th century on our lives today: the growth of the business, finance and economic world in which we exist; the development of education, the growth of the idea of the university and the modern framework of academic disciplines; and the influence, or the surprising lack of it, of religion. Two strengths of this book: he does a service in demolishing wherever he finds them arguments from the particular to the general, and he reminds us of the enduring power of the press in ensuring that a partial and misleading factoid can go half way round the world before the truth has got her boots on. A partial and misleading factoid can also stick in the collective memory for 150 years, and be repeated as gospel truth in the 21st century, it seems.

In each chapter, he tends to single out one example, and tell a lively tale, then back it up with other examples, touching on them more lightly. Blondin, the amazing tightrope walker, gets the nod in the chapter dealing with Sensation, Oscar Wilde, of course, in the chapter on sexuality. One insight I did take from that chapter was that Labouchere intended his Criminal Law Amendment Act, introducing the concept of gross indecency which carried a two year sentence, to be a liberalisation of the law on sodomy, which carried a life sentence. That it then became easier to indict people such as Oscar Wilde may have been an unintended consequence.

He draws the parallels in the chapter on childhood between the Fanny Adams murder of 1867 with the Sara Payne case of 2000. He takes the latest swing at Lewis Carroll – but then, who hasn’t? He charts the confusion and ambivalence aroused by the new concept that children deserve their innocence, and the move away from seeing them as miniature adults, and economic units from the age of six. In this chapter, I was genuinely uncertain what his thesis was – Victorians as liberated? As hypocrites? As dangerous paedophiles? Or as just confused? And as opposed to what? Moralistic and repressed? Or driven by an economic imperative? This is where my confusion sets in over the author’s intention in this book.

Sweet is at his most powerful when pointing out how sensational journalism set the agenda, then as now. He very usefully reminds us that W T Stead’s almost entirely mendacious Maiden Tribute articles in the 1880s set up a moral panic about trafficking children that resonates still today. He also isolates a pervasive outbreak of moral outrage around opium dens and evil traffickers in the East End to a single location and four individuals in Wapping. Then he provides a list of respectable and well known laudanum drinkers, and a catalogue of homely remedies all containing Class A narcotics (which many still did in living memory – Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, and Gee’s Linctus, as examples).

I am not yet in my dotage, but I suppose that I straddle the period between the death of Victoria and the birth of the new millennium. I knew my Victorian grandmother (born in 1880) and great-aunts – feisty ladies all, who worked, before, during and after marriage, and ruled the domestic roost. I had living examples before me against which I could measure the generalisations about the Victorian age.

And I read, addictively, 19th century fiction. I think I must be in a minority, for how can anyone read Dickens, Gaskell, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray, and not see a world that is completely recognisable today? Peopled with respectable folk, chancers, the cruel, the kind, the religious and the atheist, the morally upright and the immoral, as well as the pragmatic. We see the city financier with feet of clay (Mr Merdle), the dodgy futures trader (Adolphus Crosbie), the Blairite politician for hire (Phineas Finn) alongside the far-sighted businessman (John Thornton – had to get him in!) and his thinking, caring financial backer and love interest (Margaret Hale – had to get her in, too!) An interest in the astonishing energy and invention of 19th century science and technology helps, too. It gives a wholly different perspective on an age of discovery, progress and above all, intellectual curiosity. So, who IS this book aimed at? Even though I enjoyed reading it, and liked his style and energy, I found myself rather resenting his assumption that we have so little insight into the lives of our 19th century forebears.

I suppose each generation needs to feel it has rediscovered the Truth about the Victorians. In the 60s, for instance, Ronald Pearsall delved into Victorian sexuality in The Worm in the Bud (1969) and Rupert Croft-Cooke rediscovered some very counter-intuitively dysfunctional Victorian lives in Feasting with Panthers (1967). Heck, I’m a Librarian – I could write the book about the Stereotypes That Refuse To Die, then, rolling up the sleeves of my twin-set, pushing stray hairs back into my bun, and adjusting my sensible glasses, I could classify and catalogue it, too. I have a fellow feeling with any other group of people, alive or dead, that is so thoroughly misunderstood. So, every decade or two, someone decides that it is time to rescue the Victorian age from lazy journalism and received ideas, and that is pretty well entirely a Good Thing. Matthew Sweet is the latest to mount a rescue mission. I rather think that he thinks he is the first, but is he, really? And has he looked in the all the best places, as opposed to those that offer the greatest frisson, to illustrate the greatness of heart and the intellectual energy of the Victorians?

While I was reading this book, I kept thinking that I’d have a book to write in a decade or two, about the second Elizabethan age – and when I got to the end, I found that Matthew Sweet had been thinking that too. There is a brilliant polemic in the last chapter, imagining the clichés and generalisations that would survive to make a future generation feel better about itself (for this is his pivotal point, that ‘we’ (please let me exclude myself) define ourselves by being what the Victorians are not). The modern equivalent of W T Stead and his colleagues will prevail. The online Daily Mail will be plundered for its accurate insights. Our generation will have to endure being identified with champagne-glugging red-braces-wearing city traders, new age beliefs, diets, z-list celebrities, sink estates, and – as for the place of women – simultaneously too fat, too thin, too glamorous, too ugly, staying at home to have babies and cheat the taxpayer, going to work and depriving children of childhood. It won’t be a pretty sight, but we’ll not be there to defend ourselves.

How dare we despise the Victorians! If this book is telling you what you already know, by all means, skip large chunks of it. But do the author the honour of reading the last chapter, ‘Liberating the Victorians’. And give him a big cheer.

Faber and Faber.   2002.   ISBN: 9780571206636.  288pp.

9 comments on “Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet

  1. Anna van Gelderen
    January 7, 2009

    Great article!

  2. Kirsty
    January 7, 2009

    I loved ‘Inventing the Victorians’, and while I agree it might be somewhat preaching to the converted (how many people would pick this up that knew nothing about the Victorians?), I think it pulls together lots of different strands of Victorian life very well. I also agree that the last chapter is marvellous.

    My favourite anecdote from the book is one I still find myself talking to people about. I had already known about Blondin and his tightrope across Niagara Falls, but I didn’t know before I read the book that he also did a tightrope walk inside The Crystal Palace. With a wheelbarrow. *Containing a lion*. I can only assume that the beast was sedated at the time…

  3. rosyb
    January 7, 2009

    What an entertaining piece. Welcome Hilary. Loved the feisty style.

    But is it all about how we want to define ourselves in relation to a past age, or partly the fact that the Victorians were quite paradoxical – with intellectual and scientific enquiry – and maybe more importantly – huge societal changes and social mobility counteracted by (or perhaps it was all the aspects mentioned that actually provoked) the stuffy ideas about respectability and class and women and sex and so on and so forth that we are so familiar with. Not an either/or, in other words.

  4. Nikki
    January 7, 2009

    I like the sound of Sweet describing what our second Elizabethan age might look like in years to come. Given how familiar a lot of Little Dorrit was, we do look set to be the next Victorians. But then it could be true that every age would have to face being the “next Victorians” while the age that classifies them as such look on smugly. I don’t know if that’s comforting or not! But I do suddenly have a hankering for some Gaskell…

  5. Catherine
    January 7, 2009

    What an excellent review! If you really want to get wound up by the Thatcherite interpretation of Victorian values, read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s “The De-moralization of Society”. It’s guaranteed to make you spit.

    The Labouchere Criminal Law Amendment Act is an interesting one. As you suggest, many critics think it was cynical ploy to encourage juries to convict homosexuals, as they would often be reluctant to inflict a life sentence. Harry Cocks in “Nameless Offences” sees it as the establishment of the ‘closet’ which effectively quarantined gay men. Jeffrey Weeks interprets it as equating male homosexuals with female prostitutes and an attempt to define ‘normality’, a notoriously slippery concept. The Act came to be known as the Blackmailer’s Charter.

    Lesley Hall’s website includes a useful list of Victorian sex canards, such as the Prince Albert and those pesky piano legs.

    A N Wilson has also done a good job of dispelling myths about Victorians. “The Victorians” and “After the Victorians” chart the transition through the different ages but ultimately show that we’re really not that different. Unlike many writers, he doesn’t see nineteenth-century folk as another breed. Speaking of the second Elizabethan age, he’s just published “Our Times”. If it’s anything like the two previous tomes, it’ll be iconoclastic and eclectic, but those are his endearing qualities.

    To paraphrase Matthew Sweet: “We are the Victorians. We should love them. We should thank them.”

  6. Trilby
    January 7, 2009

    Many thanks for a very interesting review.

    I suppose one of the inherent problems in talking about “the Victorians” is that so much changed over the sixty or so years that framed the Victorian era (to put this into perspective: how on earth would we class the period 1940-2000? would anyone even think of doing such a thing? or is it more natural to measure lumps of time by a single monarch’s reign? what does that mean for us, today, in a world where the Queen has been reduced to figurehead status?). Science, morality, English politics and the state of the world at large were simply not the same in 1901 as they had been in 1840 – so any attempt to speak in generalisations surely must be taken with a bucket of salt…

  7. Hilary
    January 7, 2009

    I’ve just come home to find your very kind comments. Thanks for the welcome! I’m delighted to find myself an occasional Fox.

    Kirsty: “My favourite anecdote from the book is one I still find myself talking to people about. I had already known about Blondin and his tightrope across Niagara Falls, but I didn’t know before I read the book that he also did a tightrope walk inside The Crystal Palace. With a wheelbarrow. *Containing a lion*. I can only assume that the beast was sedated at the time…”

    Yes, that is quite astounding, isn’t it! I can’t help wondering (linking two themes) if the lion hadn’t been put on the Gee’s Linctus beforehand. But I was even more flabbergasted by the anecdote about Blondin’s manager, who at short notice agreed to be carried by Blondin over Niagara Falls – and only when they had gone a hundred feet out did he find out that he was expected to get down and stand on the wire while Blondin had a rest – seven times during the crossing! His name deserves to go down in history – Harry Colcord, take a bow for truly reckless bravery.

    rosyb: “But is it all about how we want to define ourselves in relation to a past age, or partly the fact that the Victorians were quite paradoxical – with intellectual and scientific enquiry – and maybe more importantly – huge societal changes and social mobility counteracted by (or perhaps it was all the aspects mentioned that actually provoked) the stuffy ideas about respectability and class and women and sex and so on and so forth that we are so familiar with. Not an either/or, in other words.”

    Good point, but doesn’t that make them just like us (again), and not a million miles from 18th c people? And possibly 17th c and Elizabethan as well? I can find stuffy ideas about respectability, class, women, sex in – well, in the Daily Mail on any given day. Possibly sometimes in the Guardian also, if I have to be honest. I suppose this is the point that Matthew Sweet is making about our times – the 1960s will go down in song and story as the decade of free love and liberation – yet it formed Mary Whitehouse and VALA, and the sort of reaction to ‘edginess’ that has fed right the way through to the Ross/Brand scandal. So the received idea is over-simplified and inaccurate. I think Matthew Sweet (you know, I really am warming to him) is making the point that it is a blanket defamation of the Victorians to treat this as the salient feature of their mindset, when the proper description of their reactionary views would be ‘All too regrettably human’, not ‘Victorian’.

    Nikki: yes, that is thought-provoking, and I think one can possibly see a continual cycle – for instance, the received idea about the 18th c is that it was (in England) a country without piety, of free-thinking, hunting parsons, and congregations full of people who were there because they needed to retain their tied cottages. Late 18th and 19th c clergy felt they had to fix this, from both wings of the church, evangelical and catholic (the wheel turns). Yet it is the century of Methodism, and revisionist work (by the Ven. Dr Bill Jacob for instance) demonstrates widespread sincere belief and religious observance in the Church of England. In this instance the Victorians might have been guilty of defining themselves by being what the Georgians were not.

    Catherine: thank you so much, and I’m grateful for the further interpretation of the Labouchere Act and its consequences. And for the reminder about Lesley Hall, the wonderful myth-buster. And it is years since I read any A N Wilson – looks like I should read him again!

    Sorry – I’m in danger of writing a comment as long as my review. Thanks again for the warm response.

  8. Jackie
    January 9, 2009

    Very nice review: subtle humor, objective view of the author, knowledge of subject. I like how the theories of the author wasn’t just accepted unquestioningly. Well done, Ms. Ely! I wonder if he chose the tabloid subject because they offered the starkest contradiction to our views of the Victorians? Perhaps some of the other subjects mentioned, such as religion, education, business, would fit our preconceptions more readily?

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This entry was posted on January 7, 2009 by in Entries by Hilary, Non-fiction: history, Non-fiction: sociology, Uncategorized.



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